For years, we’ve been reading and loving cat cozies—those fun, light books featuring one or more cats, a quirky amateur sleuth, and a rather delightful murder—and yet somehow, Clea Simon’s The Ninth Life is exactly the book we’ve been waiting for. Compelling is not a word that comes to mind to describe most mysteries we review here, but it is the first word that came to mind as we read the first book in Simon’s new series.
The Ninth Life is not a cozy mystery. It is instead the kind of darker story that grips you by the throat on page one and does not release you until you’ve turned the final page. I say it’s the book we’ve been waiting for partly because it is told entirely from the cat’s point of view, and I can tell you, Clea Simon is a writer who has spent some time thinking about what it’s like to be a cat. The story starts in a most disturbing way, with the cat’s near-drowning. Fortunately, the cat is rescued by a pink-haired girl of perhaps fourteen, but if you think the story is going to get all warm and cuddly from that point on, think again.
Because this girl—Care, her name is—lives the uncertain existence of a child of the streets. It’s not unlike the life of a stray cat, only with the added pressures exerted by those humans who are older, or just bigger and stronger, and are eager to use the younger and weaker for their own ends.
Care names her new feline companion Blackie, and he begins to follow her—and not just for the meager amount of subpar food she’s able to share with him. Blackie sees himself as Care’s protector as the girl tries to solve the mystery of who killed the unnamed “old man” who, until his death, had been her mentor in the field of private investigation. But for this cat, Care’s on her own as she works on the old man’s last case, with precious few clues and surrounded by a bunch of sleazy types with names like Fat Peter (only he’s dead too) and Diamond Jim. And then there’s the younger boy named Tick, whom Care is looking after, or trying to, though we’re not sure what Tick is trying to do to her.
Good thing Blackie is along for the ride. He knows to be wary of everything, for this is not his first rodeo, as they say in some places. Curiously, though he’s older, he also seems brand new in some ways. Blackie seems to be remembering—or perhaps discovering?—who he is as he goes along. “I am a cat…I am older.” He makes this statement as much to himself as to the reader. Blackie also seems to suffer from PTSD after that near-drowning, sometimes waking from nightmares that cause him to lash out at Care, drawing her blood. At first he struggles whenever she picks him up, not understanding her intentions, not really trusting her, fearing she will betray him after the little bit of trust he’s granted her. But Care never turns on him, and so they stick together, surviving in the shadows as the pink-haired girl moves ever closer to a dangerous truth.
The mystery part of this story may or may not involve a stolen emerald necklace—or something much, much bigger. The reader receives bits of the story as Blackie receives them, through others’ conversations and the cat’s keen sense of smell. Those intricate criminal intentions are not always easy to follow, and we still wouldn’t swear we understand them, but when it comes down to it, we don’t really care: The magic in this story is all between Care and Blackie, and there’s plenty of it.
As I said earlier, Clea Simon has clearly spent some time considering what it’s like to be a cat. Blackie (and Care, ultimately) moves through the city as both hunter and prey, vulnerable and dangerous at the same time, depending on who the foe is. He understands both less and more than Care does, and he longs to communicate with her as easily as she talks to him. We especially like the way Blackie grooms when he is upset: “One asserts order however one can.” So true.
We found The Ninth Life to be true edge-of-your-seat reading. The story is stark, as is the setting, yet Simon dots it all with moments of insight and small beauties that offer hope. We’re left feeling that as long as Care and Blackie have each other, they’ll somehow be okay. This story isn’t cute and cuddly, but oh, is it good!
A note on the "Paws Up" system: Miss C gives either one or two paws up. One paw is for a good read; two paws is for a great read. She never gives three or four paws because that would require her to lie on her back...and Miss C does not do that!
We received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. We wouldn’t tell you it was good unless we really liked it!
The link below is an Amazon Associates link. If you purchase the book through this link, old SoLT and I could get some coin for our kibble account. Thank you!